Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rural medical program working to retain medical professionals in western North Carolina

The residency training programs at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in western North Carolina have graduated 466 physicians and dentists in 41 years, retaining 60 percent of family medical graduates in the western part of the state, MAHEC director of development Tina M. Owen and UNC Asheville intern Jane Warstler report for the Daily Yonder. Despite that success rate, the 16-county region is still short 140 family medicine doctors. "MAHEC and its state network are part of a congressionally established medical training program designed to improve healthcare for underserved communities." (16 counties in MAHEC)

Those numbers highlight the great need for rural health care professionals. One way MAHEC is trying to increase rural health care professionals is through recruitment programs that expose young people to rural physicians and mentors, Owen and Warstler write.

Dr. Jeff Heck, president and CEO of MAHEC, told Owen and Warstler, “Learning opportunities at the medical school, undergraduate and high school level fuel students’ passion and vision for medicine. Our goal is consistently to increase the number of people pursuing rural health careers in [western North Carolina]. Personal and professional mentorships become an enormous influence helping students direct their path to rural medicine.”

The UNC Kenan Primary Care Scholars program, which is led by MAHEC faculty, "immerses medical students in rural community practices to mentor and encourage them as future physicians," Owen and Warstler write. "In the summer between the students’ first and second year of medical school, these medical students live and work in a rural community in western North Carolina."

One student to have experienced the program is Margaret Pray, who was raised in an urban setting, Owen and Warstler write. She spent her summer at the Tallulah Health Center in Robbinsville, N.C., the only primary care center in Graham County. The mountainous county, which has 8,600 residents and a poverty rate 20 percent higher than the state average, has only 3.4 physicians per 10,000 residents, well below the state average of 21.5 doctors per 10,000 residents.

Pray "said the experience of living and working in a rural county was significant," Owen and Warstler write. She told them, “It was kind of a test for me to make sure that this was something that really fit my lifestyle. It was really special to see this tiny town just kind of adopt me.” She added that spending "six weeks in the county showed her she could be at home in a rural community." (Read more)

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